Sunday, February 13, 2011

'Nixon in China': An opera, an experience

So I watched "Nixon in China," the stunning, curious opera by John Adams, seen the way it should be -- in living HD -- on a big screen at Regal Cinema West Town Mall yesterday. (The only thing better, of course, would be experiencing it at the Met itself.)

And this is an opera to be experienced. I still don't know what I think about it. One thing is certain. Adams and that whirling dervish of a director Peter Sellars, who has the most colorful coif since Don King, have produced the most important American opera since "Porgy and Bess."

In the current Met production, James Maddalena sings Nixon in the role that he created in the opera's 1987 debut in Houston. Janis Kelly plays a sympathetic Pat Nixon, Russell Baun is Chou En-lai, Robert Brubaker is Mao Tse-tung, Kathleen Kim is Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao) and Richard Paul Fink is Henry Kissinger. Composer Adams also conducts.

The best scene is the rather faithfully adapted meeting between Nixon and Mao. Nixon tries to talk pragmatic politics; Mao mumbles in generalities. The worst scene is the opera-within-an-opera in which Kissinger is reduced to a strutting buffoon. It isn't Fink's fault; he does a superb job with what is scripted. For some reason, Adams decided that Kissinger would provide the comic relief and it doesn't work.

"Nixon in China" made me think of the work of composer Philip Glass. Maybe it's its minimalism. Maybe it's because I downloaded and listened to Glass's "Violin Concerto No. 2" last week. I don't know. I do know that I'm glad I saw it.

The second act is the weakest link, but the third act, also surreal, nearly redeems the mistake, as the main characters muse on mortality, reality and what-might-have-beens.

Read about the current Met production and other related material here.

The New York Times review is here.

Gay Talese gathers former Kissinger aide Winston Lord's reaction to the opera in a "Talk of the Town" piece for the current anniversary edition (2/14 and 2/21/11) of The New Yorker.

The best book on Nixon's 1972 China trip to date is "Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World" by Margaret MacMillan.

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